Somerville Review

Composed from half of the brains behind Limbo and Inside, Somerville by Jumpship Studios is an end of days adventure game, where a family composed of a mum, a dad, a little boy and their dog are rudely interrupted by mysterious extra-terrestrial activity. This unknown force makes its presence by tearing the family’s home apart and leaving tall protruding spikes jutting into the ground. Soon daddy dearest is separated from his family and left to fend for himself, as he battles to find a way to return to his kin.

This terrifying introduction to the world of Somerville does an impressive job of drawing you in, but can the game itself do enough to make you stay hooked into its 3 hour or so runtime, or will it feel like a probe up the posterior?

Executive producer Dino Patti’s influence in Somerville is immediately realized through the familiar comparisons it draws with Playdead’s previous efforts. Artistically and stylistically, Somerville eschews an ambience very similar to Inside, through the way the story is told without words and how environmental puzzles make up the bulk of the experience. Unlike Inside however, you are playing as a father instead of a child, and the premise lacks the inscrutable qualities of Playdead’s games.

This inferiority is found within the premise, as you’re aware that you’re playing a dad trying to reunite with his family, whereas in Inside and Limbo, you are taking control of a child with no apparent backstory. The lack of backstory allowed those games to constantly intrigue players, so they can make up their own theories about the meaning behind the characters and their dire situations. Sadly, Somerville doesn’t willingly allow players to imagine or ponder, it straight up gives you the scenario – and that’s disappointing.

Intrigue is strengthened later-on in the adventure as strange, unexpected guidance turns up to lend you a hand and peculiar figures make sure you aren’t without allies on your journey. Somerville starts slow and somewhat uninteresting, but it manages to bloom the further you progress.

Much like its forebears, Somerville is a puzzle-heavy adventure, with moments of reflections peppered in if you want to stop and take it all in-without the threats looming around you of course. Early on, the puzzle design usually revolves around using the father’s electric-like arm to clear away walls and to lure glowing black orbs with shining eyes to do your bidding. You’ll need to power up generators, unfurl chords, fiddle about with junction boxes and jumper cables, and manipulate mine carts, vehicles and platforms to proceed forward. Later on, more enjoyable puzzle elements are thrown into the mix, where you can change liquid surfaces into solid surfaces and vice-versa, so you can clear the path ahead.

Solutions to puzzles tend to be straightforward most of the time, but occasionally you may encounter stumbles that indicate troublesome design. You may not know what to do when you’ve filled up a pail of water, or you might get caught out by the ominous UFO glow, because it wasn’t obvious where you needed to hide. Similarly, there are times where you’ll have to hide from an enemy’s searchlight and they may strike you down, even though you’re placed properly behind an object for cover.

Drama is where Somerville is at its best, often occurring from the persistence of the inexplicable entities you’re continuously harassed by. For instance, a UFO’s foreboding pinkish-hued beam chases you throughout your quest, and you’ve no choice but to desperately charge to the nearest cover, be that the shadowy side of a boat, a hidey hole or a porter potty. The sense you’re being preyed upon does induce fear, which is a commendable touch, and the times where you need to be careful can deliver a light feeling of intensity, as you try not to alert the unknown sentry stalkers.    

The mood and presentation of Somerville retains the familiar subtleties of Playdead’s work with gentle piano chimes evoking melancholic tones, though music is generally underplayed and could’ve served to pronounce the game’s more dramatic moments.

The minimalistic approach to the game’s art style is welcome, if familiar. There are at times, some lovely views to behold as you tread through each location. A few bugbears are present which can hamper the pleasantness of Somerville’s ambience. These include the father protagonist sometimes jittering on pieces of the environment, prompting a checkpoint restart- though luckily these instances are infrequent. Also, the animation of the little boy as he walks is so uncanny valley it’s disturbing.

Somerville clocks in at just about 3 hours, so much like Inside and Limbo it is brief. However, it also does a good job leaving an impression, so you won’t forget about it so soon, despite it not having the same bite as its spiritual predecessors.

Conclusion

Though it may not be quite as thought-provoking as the games that inspired it, Somerville is a promising effort from a new studio, capably evoking its themes and happenings through its visual storytelling, in a way that makes you ponder and feel for the characters and their situations. Unfortunately, Somerville can’t remove itself from the shadow of Playdead’s works, so it is inevitably stuck in the position of inferiority, because it doesn’t do much we haven’t seen before. Having said that, it is a worthwhile adventure that may start slow, but picks up momentum the more you play and is backed up by decent puzzles and some pulse-quickening and heart-thumping drama. All told Somerville is a pleasant slice of thought-provoking adventuring.

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This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Decent dramatic moments
  • Gets better the more you play
  • Underpinned by emotional storytelling
Bad
  • Too derivative of Playdead’s games
  • Puzzles can feel cumbersome
  • The way the toddler waddles is scary
7.2
Good
Written by
Although the genesis of my videogame addiction began with a PS1 and an N64 in the mid-late 90s as a widdle boy, Xbox has managed to hook me in and consume most of my videogame time thanks to its hardcore multiplayer fanaticism and consistency. I tend to play anything from shooters and action adventures to genres I'm not so good at like sports, RTS and puzzle games.

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